Monday, 16 October 2017

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know’- How picture books help children to learn language- by Lucy Rowland

 (Illustration by Oliver Jeffers)
Back in April I wrote a blog post for Picture Book Den called ‘The Power of Again’ which looked at the importance of repetition in picture books and, more specifically, at repetition as a way of supporting children to learn language.

As I’ve previously mentioned, as well as being a picture book author, I am also a Children’s Speech and Language Therapist.  Fortunately, I feel these two professions go together quite well. We know there is a huge amount of research showing the positive link between early reading, language development and later academic success.  Book Trust has undertaken many research projects and case studies into the wide-ranging benefits of reading, not only academic but also those related to encouraging families' enjoyment of book sharing.  Book Trust has written about their research here

But in summary... reading is important….Roald Dahl knew it….

And so, too, did Dr Suess….

But what is it exactly that makes picture books the perfect tool to support language learning?  I’m currently working with my Speech and Language Therapy colleagues to produce some training on this very subject and we found a great article by Lauren Lowry (a Speech and Language Therapist) on the Hanen Centre Website.  The article explains that children learn new words best...

·         When they hear words often (The power of Again!)  Picture books frequently use repetition and repeated refrains and are generally read over and over again!
·         When they are interested.
When adults respond to them-  ‘It is easy to join focus during a picture book and to notice what the child is looking at and talking about.  Sometimes it’s best to abandon the story for a little while and follow the child’s lead to talk about the things that interest him or her.'

·         When the meaning is clear (e.g. an adult reading ‘She whispered…..’ in a whispered voice).  Parents can use the beautiful illustrations in picture books to help children learn new words.  We know that using pictures and talking about things in the ‘here and now’ is extremely helpful when children are learning language.  Children learn words best when they can see, hear or experience them.
·         When vocabulary and grammar are learned together in sentences.
·         And crucially, Lowry also stresses how children learn language best when they are having fun!

Picture books allow for all these elements!

A proud moment for me, after the release of my first picture book ‘Gecko’s Echo’ (with illustrator, Natasha Rimmington), was when a Speech and Language Therapy friend told me that her 2 –year-old son had learnt the word ‘Gecko’.  (‘Gecko’ is not a word that many 3-5 year olds in this country are familiar with. When I read this book at events, children’s guesses about what the animal on the cover might be, range from ‘frog’ to ‘crocodile’ to ‘dinosaur’! ) My friend told me that, together, she and her son will shout out ‘GECKO’ as they walk through the tunnel near their house, just to hear the gecko’s echo come back.

As authors and illustrators, we often use the funny things that children say to spark ideas for stories. Lauren Child is particularly good at using a very child-like voice in her wonderful Charlie and Lola series.
‘I will not ever, never eat a Tomato!’ 

But what about using picture books to teach specific language concepts or themes? While ALL picture books are useful in supporting children’s language development, I came across a great website site called  It is run by Cecile Ferreira (an Australian Speech and Language Therapist).  This site helps people to choose picture books that target specific language concepts, themes, plots and even grammatical structures and speech sounds.  Whilst, these last areas may be a bit ‘Speech and Language Therapy- specific’, I was wondering whether anyone has used picture books to teach language in a deliberate way?  A specific concept perhaps? By reading early concept board books? Have you used a picture book to link with new topics that your children are learning about at school? Or, alternatively, have you ever used something funny that a child has said to spark a whole new story of your own?  

 My latest picture book with illustrator, Mark Chambers, is 'Jake Bakes a Monster Cake.'  It teaches children extremely useful vocabulary (such as 'bogey-green slime!) and comes with additional 'scratch and sniff' stickers!  

Monday, 9 October 2017

So much effort for something so small • Paeony Lewis

Picture book authors accept (begrudgingly!) that only a percentage of their stories will see publication. It varies, but even A-list authors might only get one in eight manuscripts published. What happens to all those unpublished stories? This is the tale of one of those stories.

Back at the turn of the century (literally) I sent a story to a publisher. It was called Blue Thingy and in 470 words it told the story of two kangaroos in the Australian outback who are given an umbrella and haven’t a clue what to do with it.

The editor felt there was potential, although she said kangaroos were a problem, especially as the Australian setting wouldn’t be acceptable in the American market and I’d need to use more universally familiar animals. Also, the ending was flat and a bit pointless.

So I rewrote the story and Blue Thingy with kangaroos was transformed into Red Thingy with rabbits (450 words). Again, the editor thought it had potential, but was too episodic, lacked a real climax and was similar to another picture book they’d done which hadn’t been successful. She felt it needed a stronger storyline with the two rabbits setting out on a journey.

Once again I rewrote the story and Red Thingy became Big Carrot (530 words). There was a new underlying theme and it became an adventure story about young rabbits searching for a big carrot (obviously an orange and green umbrella looks very like a carrot!). Unfortunately, the editor had now gone a bit cold on the umbrella idea and felt the story was too contrived. Therefore I filed it away and wrote new stories. That's life. 

Then, a year later, I had a lovely surprise. A new editor at a different publisher asked me if I’d like to send her my unpublished story about rabbits and an umbrella. She’d remembered reading it in her previous job and had liked it despite the fact it had been rejected by the other editor.

Unfortunately, Big Carrot still didn’t make it into publication. Instead, all my umbrella stories languished in a file for over fifteen years until I received an email from another publisher about a new series of reading scheme books.

Unlike many stories, I’d never forgotten my original story about kangaroos and an umbrella. So when I was thinking about stories that would be fun, simple, and have a strong visual element, the mysterious umbrella seemed to have potential. However, a reading scheme book isn’t the same as a picture book.

Now I had to write a story that children would read for themselves (unlike picture books that are written to be read by adults to children and  can use richer, more complex language). Reading scheme books might appear ludicrously simple to write, but they’re not. Absolutely not! Plus the story has to engage and inspire children to persevere with their fledgling reading skills and also give opportunities for discussion. 

From Hans in Luck, an OUP reading scheme book

 I had a word count of just 125 words. Yikes! Plus the publisher had meticulous lists of phonic sounds appropriate to specific reading levels, and apart from a few key words, there could be no deviation from the lists. Thankfully this wasn’t new to me as in the past I’d enjoyed playing with words until they fit both the story and the restrictive list of permitted phonic sounds. It’s like doing a word puzzle. For example, I could use the decodable word ‘lightning’ but not ‘so’ or ‘said’. I could use ‘hot’ but not ‘cold’. ‘Lizard’ but not ‘mouse’. It makes sense when you know the progression of the phonic sounds, though it can be hard to ensure the story sounds natural.

I rewrote the story and changed the kangaroos to goats (a permitted word). Perhaps fortunately, the publisher already had a story in the series about goats so I had to think of a new animal that would live in an African desert (this time the publisher was keen to introduce an environment that wouldn’t be overly familiar to the reader). 

Phew, I was permitted to pick an animal that didn’t have to fit the phonic sound restrictions. Therefore I researched fennec foxes, sand cats and meerkats. The first two were cute but nocturnal, which would have been tricky for the illustrations. The editor liked meerkats, so I stopped worrying that we’re more familiar with meerkats in the UK because of a certain advertisement. Now the story was about meerkats discovering a mysterious thing in the Namibian desert (the reader knows it’s an umbrella, but not the meerkats).

Series editors and educational consultants then discussed my story and eventually we all agreed on the final text. Now it was time for the illustrations and testing by children.

The publisher commissioned Jonny Lambert for the illustrations and I like his style of digital collage and the delightful little extras he slips into the images. I suspect I’d be staggered if I knew everything that was done behind the scenes at the illustration stage.

FINALLY, seventeen years later, Thing is published. You won’t find it basking on the shelves of Waterstones, though you should find it in many schools around the world. Thing is only 125 words and looks small and flimsy. On the surface it might appear insignificant. However, now you know how deceptive appearances can be. Rather like mysterious umbrellas! 

Paeony Lewis

Thing by Paeony Lewis and Jonny Lambert is published by Oxford University Press.
Oxford Reading Tree Level 3, Story Sparks, for 4-6 years. ISBN 9780198 414971

Monday, 2 October 2017

Our Wildest Book Dream: by Pippa Goodhart

Is it just me who gets annoyed when writers and bakers and actors who win things say that they ‘never in their wildest dreams’ thought of winning such a thing?  How could they achieve those things if they didn’t imagine that goal and strive for it?  Was winning truly just an accident?’  My gut instinct is to not believe them.  So I am confessing here that I do dare to dream wild dreams. 
In my wildest dreams I write books which win a prize.  In my wildest dreams I write books that particular children love in that wonderful child way that absorbs the book into their very beings, pondering it and sharing it again and again, still thinking about them many years on into their lives.   The book of mine for which those wild dreams actually came true was, and is, You Choose.  But the way in which the wild dream has unfolded hasn’t gone at all according to how it did in those wild dreams. 
Did my (then) agent love the idea and the text for the book?  No.  Did publishers set up a bidding war for it?  No.  One after another, they turned it down.  But then lovely Penny Walker at Transworld DID like it, and she even asked who I’d like to illustrate it.  The dream twitched into life!  And became true when my dream choice of illustrator, Nick Sharratt, agreed to take on the book. 
But did the resulting book get reviewed and showered with prizes?  No, not a single review for years.  Not a single prize long-listing, let alone win … at least for the first nine years after its publication.  So how did You Choose manage to stay in print long enough to eventually get noticed in those sorts of ways?  Largely because Wendy Cooling chose it as a book to be given to hundreds of thousands of children through the Bookstart scheme.  My wild dream hadn’t thought of that move!  But that was vital to eventual success.  
When sales of You Choose hit a million, did the publisher send me a golden book to hang on my wall?  Flowers, perhaps?  Champagne?  No, no, and no.  The fact that You Choose had sold over a million copies was something that I only discovered when that boast got printed on a new edition of the book, and I queried it.  ‘Oh, didn’t you know?’  No, I didn’t!  So that moment had passed me by. 
But lovely things certainly were happening with You Choose.  Nick and I have seen so many used to bits tatty copies of the book, such as this one, and that’s a real compliment to a book -

And, nine years after publication, You Choose finally did win a prize, and a particularly lovely one.  It was voted to be The Best Picture Book of All Time by the readers of York’s libraries.  Thank you, North Yorkshire! 

And the publishers accepted a further book in the You Choose style.  Just Imagine came out nine years after You Choose.  And now both You Choose and Just Imagine have been chosen by Dolly Parton’s imagination Library as book gifts she buys in huge numbers to give children.  I certainly never dreamed of the very lovely letters I’ve received from Dolly herself in relation to that!     

And now, da daaaa!, a third such book, You Choose in Space, is newly published.  Nick Sharratt excels himself with his aliens and spacecraft in this beautiful book full of things to spot and talk about and enjoy.

So, for all my cynicism about that phrase about ‘wildest dreams’, and the users of it, I can genuinely say that to get to this moment of publication of a third book in the You Choose family (that, yes, IS being reviewed already), the Dolly Parton endorsement, and the ongoing many many kind comments from people about the books truly is ‘beyond my wildest dreams’!  
Thank you to Nick Sharratt, Penguin Random House, Wendy Cooling, and all the many many children, parents, teachers and librarians who have cheer-led this family of books.  Thank you, and, as Dolly would say, do, yourselves, dare to dream!